Monday, April 6, 2015

Capturing Sage Grouse with the Help of Rock ‘n’ Roll --Guest Post---

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) has been receiving a lot of attention lately. This goofy chicken-relative inhabits sagebrush country in the United States and Canada and is famed for their mating ritual of congregating on leks (sage grouse breeding grounds) this time of year to puff up their air sacks and show their feathery finery in competition with other males for the local females.

Like many of the grouse species, human expansion has put a cramp on the sage grouse style and their population has sharply declined from the teen-millions to the hundred thousands over the last hundred years. Normally with this decline a species would receive federal protection status however the larger political battle has left this grouse on the wrong side of the road. The fossil fuel industry and at times the renewable industry has different intentions for what is currently sage grouse habitat and sage grouse often are precluded from conservation despite their circumstance.

While it seems like some can be indifferent to the plight of the sage grouse the same can’t necessarily be said for the on-the-ground workers and volunteers in local towns and federal and state governments. This disagreement has created some funding to study and see the birds close up. A lot of these jobs involve counting the birds at the leks, trapping and radio collaring the birds at night and then stalking them with radio telemetry during the day to find out more about their habits and habitat. I was recently honored with the opportunity to join some graduate students from the University of Nevada for several nights of sage grouse trapping and wanted to share the experience.

A Night in the Life of a Sage Grouse Trapper

The Group:

You meet up with your crew just before sunset and drive out to the trapping location. Your crew consists of a Spotter who carries a boom box, binoculars, and a spotlight and one or two Catchers (that’s me!) with headlamps who carry fishing nets that are about 2 feet in diameter and are attached to an 8 foot pole.

The Spot:

Once at the trapping location you wait until true darkness before walking around looking for grouse. The walking around consists of walking for a while then stopping while the Spotter uses the spotlight and binoculars to scan the area for the greenish eye-shine of a sage grouse. The sage grouse eye-shine is almost impossible to see with the naked eye from any large distance however as a spotter you will be able to see the eye-shine of rabbit, coyote, and pronghorn throughout the night. Spotters often like to look in areas of low vegetation (so the grouse are easier to see and catch with our downhill momentum), or from the top of a hill looking down at a lower elevation on the other side of a small valley.

Many times you can spend hours (or nights) walking around in the dark looking for eye shine. This gives a Catcher a lot of time to look at the stars, twist an ankle in a badger hole or think about what they are doing with their lives.

Once a sage grouse is spotted you may have to get closer to the sage grouse. So everyone in the group will turn off their headlamps and walks/stumbles in the dark a little closer to where the grouse is. It can feel like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits in the dark at times.

The Capture:

Once within capturing distance (within a 100 yards) the Spotter beams the sage grouse with the spotlight to blind it/mystify it and gives the signal for the boom box. The boom box then plays incredibly loud and incredibly heavy metal music to muffle the groups footsteps and thoroughly confuse the birds. Once the boom box starts the entire teams starts racing in the dark to where the sage grouse is. During this part of the capture we played Rooster by Alice in Chains but pretty much any loud metal music would work.

The Catchers (who have no idea where the sage grouse is located because they didn’t see the eye shine) furtively look at the ground to figure out where the spotter is pointing the spotlight. Eventually when the catchers are within 15 feet of the heavily camouflaged grouse they see the stunned bird. The Catchers then run in front of the Spotter at the last second and net it while it still on the ground and then pounce to pin the 4 pound bird to the ground. Usually the birds are sitting in small groups and many will flush during the process but usually you’ll catch a couple. Once the birds are sufficiently captured the boom box is turned off.

The Process:

After the capture, different measurements and methods can be taken on the bird from sexing it to weight and wing measurements to taking blood samples and placing a radio collar on the bird. It varies study by study. Despite the odd method of capturing the birds it is surprisingly effective, inexpensive, and has a lower capture myopathy (death related to capture or handling) than many other methods. A lot of times the captured bird will loose a few feathers and poop on your pants, or in one unfortunate experience, on your face (tastes like sage!). After you process the bird you place it in taller bushes so it has a chance to recover rather than immediately flushing into the dark night.

Want to Trap Grouse?

During this time of year several Sage Grouse positions and volunteer opportunities open up around the Great Basin area. The current attention to sage grouse varies state by state but if you are interested in getting a job working with these goofy birds search state departments of wildlife (especially Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada) and local universities. Funding has been provided for more than a couple research students.

Do you have any experience trapping grouse? Write a comment and let us know about your experiences!

Meg Renninger writes about the fantastic adaptations of animals and humans at animalsandweapons.com. A fervent supporter of the local library and loyal reader of many blogs, Meg also finds time for her two dogs, large garden, and local breweries. Follow her on Twitter

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